Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I Am Not Resigned

While rereading the comments left on my previous post regarding Mary Oliver's poem, "Peonies," I was struck again by the beauty of her images and the metaphors for life abundant within her words. When Cletis Stump, in his comments, mentioned Edna St. Vincent Millay, I saw similarities in the cadence of certain lines in that poem and Edna's, "Dirge Without Music." I first heard it many years ago while watching a movie starring Robert Duvall. I don't know for certain but it may have been, "The Apostle," or  perhaps, "The Stone Boy."  In the film, if I recall correctly, a high school English teacher reads this poem to her students. It was the first time I had ever heard it. I was so moved I had to find and reread it as soon as possible. My mother had recently passed and it struck a chord. Let me share it with you and then I'll tell you why, "I am not resigned."

"Dirge Without Music"

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the
   hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, -- but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter,
   the love, --
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in
   the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know, but I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

I haven't yet written a great deal about my father. Father's Day came and went, as did his birthday a couple of days later, and still I didn't feel any draw towards writing about him. As the date of his passing approaches, June 30th, six years ago now, I have given this some thought and realized it's because I don't feel he's gone. I still feel his presence in my life, very much. I'm not referring to his influence on me, although there is that, I actually feel his presence, and have since the day he passed. No, not every day, all day long. Certainly nothing like that. I do, though, often feel him near when I have questions and have turned to him for his thoughts when I'm struggling a bit. So, to write as though he is gone doesn't feel true. This is not just wishful thinking nor a flight of fancy. Perhaps I should tell you about what happened the day of his passing. I don't know anything with absolute certainty, but I know what I experienced.

I got the call from my sisters around 5:00 in the morning. I was half expecting the call as I had just flown from Santa Fe to Minnesota twice in the previous six weeks when we thought his passing was imminent, but was instead a false alarm from which he had seemed to rally. I had spoken to Dad on the phone the previous morning and felt we were very much at peace about our relationship although Dad, I know, had lingering concerns about me living far away from home and family.

After the call, some crying and walking around in a daze for a while, I made plans to fly home. I couldn't get a flight until the following morning, so I decided to run a couple of errands in town. As I often did, I took the service road running parallel to the interstate. It's a somewhat calmer drive, although usually a fairly busy road. This day it seemed to be very quiet, in fact, I didn't pass a single car. A few miles outside of town, I saw him. No, not my dad, but something that very much symbolized him. He was coming up out of the arroyo and onto the road directly in front of me: a beautiful, large whitetail deer with a magnificent set of antlers. I put on my brakes as he calmly walked past, chest jutting out with a sense of pride, strength, and determination. He looked like Bambi's dad. Seriously. And I swear, he paused ever so slightly to look at me through the windshield. I sat there, transfixed.

After he had walked out of sight, I slowly moved on, held in a sense of wonder. Just before I got to town, I pulled over on the side of the road as a torrent of emotions washed over and through me.

That afternoon, I called to tell my sister. She said she had just returned from the funeral home where Dad had a couple of years earlier made most of his own arrangements, including the selection of his casket. She said that on the inside of the lid, embossed in beige satin, was a large whitetail deer with a magnificent set of antlers.

Photo: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Friday, June 24, 2011

Everything's Coming Up Peonies

Early this morning I walked out to the garden to pick a fresh bouquet of peonies. New blooms keep appearing and will for a while, offering many days of unruly beauty. I love their passionate display of life, lived in this perfect moment - enjoying the rain, the sun, everything just as it is.

When I came in, I thought of Mary Oliver and her poem, "Peonies." It describes my own morning, bare feet and all.


This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
   to break my heart
     as the sun rises,
        as the sun strokes them with his old buttery fingers

and they open --
   pools of lace,
     white and pink --
        and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
   into their curls,
     craving the sweet sap,
        taking it away

to their dark, underground cities --
   and all day
     under the shifty wind,
        as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
   and tip their fragrance to the air,
     and rise,
        their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
   gladly and lightly,
     and there it is again --
         beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
   Do you love this world?
      Do you cherish your humble and sticky life?
          Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
    and softly,
      and exclaiming of their dearness,
          fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
   their eagerness
      to be wild and perfect for the moment, before they're
          nothing, forever?

~ Mary Oliver


The photographs are mine.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It's a Jungle Out There

I've always wanted to live in a tree house. Ever since I watched, "Swiss Family Robinson," as a child this seemed like a good idea. From the room where I'm now writing I can look out the window and it almost feels like I'm looking out from a tree house deep in the woods, perhaps even the Amazon rain forest.

Greenery is spilling all over everything. Flowers are popping out and I will soon have hundreds of peonies. There are twenty-six peony plants, all bursting at the seams with buds; a few early bloomers are among them.

Everything is dripping wet from a steady rain yesterday and into the night. We've had very little sun for many days, even weeks. My gardens love it but surely they too must be wanting a little sunshine and blue skies. Ah well, who am I to say? Nature knows better than I.

Very early this morning, while walking around with Buddy, I realized several more irises had bloomed down in the hollow and they needed their picture taken. I was more than happy to oblige. Deer had walked through and left a few with heads bowed.

What  got me walking further through the tall wet grass was this beauty who was attempting to steal the spotlight. Her bright buttery color called out to me. Yes, she is something, but I have to say, the quiet demeanor of the smaller irises are more appealing to me.

Buddy found some little lavender flowers that look very much like orchids on the bushes around the old greenhouse and he decided they looked good enough to eat. To Buddy, everything looks good enough to eat.

The rain continues. Life in my tree house feels really good. I sense the world expanding despite the jungle green closeness, expanding in ways I don't fully understand yet, but I will. All in good time.

"We are born to love as we are born to die, and between the heartbeats of these two great mysteries lies all the tangled undergrowth of our tiny lives. There is nowhere to go but through. And so we walk on, lost, and lost again, in the mapless wilderness of love."

~ Tim Farrington, from The Monk Downstairs

The photographs are mine.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How to Spend a Day

           "I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out."

           ~ Oscar Wilde, paraphrased

The photograph is mine.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Summertime and Dandelion Wine

Where I grew up on Rural Route One lawns were things on which we played Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Captain May I. Nobody thought twice about dandelions on the lawn. We didn't use the greens for salads or the roots for tea, but they were used to decorate some pretty awesome mud pies if I do say so myself. I lined them up on a board and let them bake in the sun. My grandfather, Moses, paid a whole nickel for one particularly stunning creation. Other days I was paid with a stick or two of Juicy Fruit gum. That was before I found out that dandelions have other, more powerful attributes.

Enter Uncle Allen. Allen was Aunt Gertrude's husband, one of several through the years. I don't recall where he was in the line-up but I liked his quiet demeanor. Plus, he made some potent dandelion wine. How do I know?  Well, my sisters and I were waiting for a ride to the Purple Peanut one Saturday night, our tee-totaling parents were away, and one thing led to another, as these things do.  Next thing I knew, we'd popped the cork on the dandelion wine stored way in the back on the bottom shelf of the kitchen cupboard, glasses had come out and that sweet summer goodness was poured.  Not much.  It didn't take much.

Shortly thereafter, I'm standing at the kitchen window keeping a vigilant eye out for headlights, apparently saying some pretty engaging stuff as I had my sisters in giggles. I did some giggling of my own and then our ride showed up. How I felt was nothing I was familiar with, I just knew things seemed a little odd and I found I could watch myself from a short distance away. Half an hour later and twenty miles down the road we arrived at the Purple Peanut, the dancing commenced and life went on. No prices were paid, none that I recall; maybe my sister, Chris, took the fall.

Later that summer, very early in the morning, Mom came into my bedroom to tell me they were leaving for a few days. They had received word that Uncle Allen had drowned while fly fishing on a river in Idaho. He had slipped on some rocks, his waders filled up, and the river took him away. Aunt Gertrude watched in despair, helpless on the shore. She came to visit us some time after and I remember her sitting in a chair, very quiet, in the dim afternoon light.

In the late 1950's, Ray Bradbury wrote a book of somewhat autobiographical stories called, "Dandelion Wine," sort of a metaphor for the bittersweet joy bottled up in one youthful summer. I've been thinking maybe next year I'll cook up some summer in a bottle and, in the winter, when the wine is ready, I'll pour a glass for myself and one for Uncle Allen. We're all moving down this timeless river, still together, with nothing to fear and no reason to grieve.

So, here's to summer: dandelions and mud pies, rivers and Captain May I, and dancing at the Purple Peanut late into the night, 'til the river takes us 'round the bend, and out of sight.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Poems of Acceptance

Well, I was going to talk about dandelion wine, but the Tony Awards have been handed out and life has been altered for me. Not in any truly noticeable way. It came in the form of  Mark Rylance. England born, Wisconsin raised (yes, he grew up right next door), and winner of the Tony for his portrayal of Rooster Byron in "Jerusalem," a play about life on the fringe, among other things. His acceptance speech came in the form of a prose poem by Louis Jenkins, who just happens to reside in Duluth, MN.

I've read a few poems by Mr. Jenkins and I've looked at Mr. Rylance photos, more than once, and I've decided to share one with you. One poem, one photo. It was hard deciding. They are all so good....

I decided to go with the acceptance speech, this years, as he also quoted one of Louis Jenkin's poems in his 2008 Tony acceptance speech. It was "The Back Country" then, and this photo will do nicely:

The neighbors and I have been threatening to read a play together. Perhaps I've found one that would fit.  I'll run it by them. Casting will be easy, as gender is not important in theater. That was determined a long time ago. In the meantime, here is the poem/acceptance speech:

"Walking Through a Wall"

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, 'Say, I want to try that.' Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure or the alloy or just the amount of give in the fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

~ Louis Jenkins

I'm just going to sit here a while longer and look at Mr. Rylance, perhaps read a bit more of Louis Jenkins. Maybe tomorrow I'll talk about getting sauced on dandelion wine.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hillbilly Girl

While on my walk with Buddy this morning I thought a bit about the term "hillbilly." I never thought of myself as such when I was a child but by many standards set forth I did fit that category. We lived on the edge of the foothills where wolves could be heard sometimes at night as well as the cries of a lynx. Both would send us scrambling towards the safety of the porch light. I spent summers barefoot with mud squished between my toes, on the run from cowboys or Indians depending on which side I was on that particular summer day. To us, life wasn't meager. It had a fullness and richness that had nothing to do with our pocketbooks and everything to do with our hearts and our minds.

Like many mothers who want more for their children my mother made sure that gifts were special. She bought things that would remind us of the possibilities, things that were completely useless in the life we knew but we understood what they represented. On my eleventh birthday I received a boxed set of Maja perfume and dusting powder. The label showed a Spanish woman in a flowing red dress with black lace mantilla (I learned that word later). I couldn't relate but I could dream. I placed them carefully on the dresser next to my gift from the previous Christmas - a hand held mirror, satin backed with matching brush and comb in faux tortoise shell.

Today, Buddy and I stopped at a meadow full of what I call buttercups, a cluster of small yellow-orange flowers. I used to bring them to my mother, pulled from the ditch along our road, and I do mean pulled as they usually came complete with roots. As Buddy rolled around in the grass among them I sat down next to him, glad to be in such good company. The thing that came to mind while sitting there among those buttercups was that hillbilly is just a state of mind, and as states of mind go it's not a bad one.

I've been back in Minnesota almost two years now living less than twenty miles from where my childhood home still stands. I'm re-learning how to live harmoniously with the land and my surroundings. They say life is a circle, that everything is concentric. Nature certainly teaches us that: the rings in trees tell their story, circles in seashells talk of the ebb and flow of time, it's in the way a bird builds its nest. It's in everything, everywhere.

As we were heading for home this morning, Buddy emerged from the ferns along the river, his mouth full of little blue forget-me-nots. We trotted home together, this Buddha-boy and me, flowers flying.  It's a beautiful and mysterious thing to be alive, living within this circle.

Here is Greg Brown with "Hillbilly Girl."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

That was Then, This is Now

In the kitchen of the small house I grew up in, seven of us would sit around the table (there was no dining room in rural Backus) and eat our meals. Next to the door leading to the front porch was a porcelain sink set into a metal cabinet. Above it was a medicine cabinet that held aspirin and probably my mom's heart pills. I know it held aspirin because one afternoon my sister Jane and I decided to pretend we were nurses, while Mother took a nap in the next room. We took turns dispensing them, and by the time Mom woke up, we'd lost track of how many had been dispensed. Jane was slightly older and apparently could recall she'd only taken a couple. Having gone down with the requisite spoonful of sugar, my number was somewhat less knowable. Unfortunately, I was treated to the salt water solution technique. I was forced to drink it, which induced vomiting - into a cast iron fry pan. It was a harrowing experience. Pure hell comes to mind. Then she kept an eye on me. Not much else to do. Times were different then, especially for country folk. We didn't do much doctoring.

Next to the sink was a tall, or so it seemed at the time, singular wooden cabinet with a simple metal latch. Inside was the sugar container, a white porcelain pig with red kerchief. The creamer, if there ever was one, no longer existed. Next to that was the door to my parent's bedroom and then the cook stove. No, not an oven and range, a cook stove, wood-fired, one of those with a warming oven next to the wood box and a tall back, a lot of cast iron and what was once very shiny metal. The back held salt and pepper shakers. The salt and pepper shakers were wooden heads with painted faces and baker's caps and when you turned them over they cried. I don't know why, they just did, and it provided occasional bouts of entertainment when all other possibilities had been stretched thin.

There was an opening between the kitchen and the living room that had no function but probably passed for an architectural detail at one time. Hanging on the wall next to it was this small framed picture with a quote that surely must have been my mother's prayer. I have it hanging in my kitchen now. It has a lot of miles on it.

By the doorway going into the living room, (not leading to, going into), stood another cupboard. Then there was the table, a red and white metal rectangle covered with oilcloth, the kind you once bought from a roll in the back of the hardware store. The somewhat matching chairs were also white with red. I should remember, as I got my head stuck in between the back and the seat one hot summer day (Don't ask. Couldn't tell you). Hank, the neighbor man, was called to take the chair apart, but not wanting to call attention to myself, at the last minute I freed myself through sheer willpower. My ears burned and itched, but I was free. I was five years old at the time.

We always knew there would be a meal on the table. It may have had potatoes from the garden as a main course, but it was food. In the winter there was probably the dreaded venison. It took me a lot of years to realize that venison didn't always taste like meat gone bad. It's all in the cutting up of it, the preparation, if you will. When it's winter, with deer season long over, you cut it up fast and you freeze it even faster.

Sitting around this table could sometimes be a very pleasant experience. Banter and humor played a large part, as well as talk about politics, religion, and the possibility of  "flying saucers."  I didn't come by my interests randomly. My father sat on one end, I sat on his right, with my back to the windows that looked out at what passed for a garage and the field beyond. That field played a large role in our lives.

Other times, it was not so pleasant. If someone politely asked for something to be passed, I would remind them that they could reach it. More than occasionally, middle sister Chris would share an opinion, and the older siblings would tell her to go back to her cage. Squabbles broke out, feelings got hurt, and tears were shed. And not always between the siblings. Sometimes I sat numbly and waited for the storm to pass.

Those were the tough years, but we didn't talk about it. We were poor, but didn't know it. At least not in any way that caused damage to our souls. And, we were fortunate. It did not always remain so. My parents worked hard. Life improved. In those days it seemed easier to rise above your circumstances. In small towns, banks gave legitimate loans to legitimate people for legitimate reasons. That's how it was. It's not that way anymore. And it might never be again.

This Saturday morning, I am reminded of a poem I heard Bob Hicok read on PBS a few months ago. It still sits in the back of my mind, called forth now and then to remember that there are a lot of folks who are looking at life through another lens and it doesn't look promising. The poem was written in 2004, but like many poems there's a prescience about it that surely hasn't escaped Mr. Hicok.

"Calling him back from layoff"

I called a man today. After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been

confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was

and it turns out I'm OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars

painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that's a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle

for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said

he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean

and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through

with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions

as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried

with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward

than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other

and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other

forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones


Painting: Andrew Wyeth   "Groundhog Day"

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Old Homesteads, New Marshes, and Blackbirds on the Wing

Buddy and I have decided to make a morning walk part of our day, a ritual, if you will. He was all for it. I needed more convincing. But, I'm glad we reached an agreement, not a compromise, an agreement. We Will go for a morning walk. He takes the lead with the leash in his mouth as though he's just the best little helper on the planet. At some point this walk turns into a run. His ears are flapping, big old smile on his face as he looks back over his shoulder to say, "Isn't this fun?  I told you you'd like a morning walk."

This morning our walk led us to my place near the river. Buddy spotted the water under the small foot bridge and wanted to jump in. I didn't let him, thinking how muddy he would be. Later, I realized I should have let him be a dog and have some fun. So tomorrow he gets to jump in. Should be interesting.

Down the road a piece, Buddy had to check out some smells that only he could smell along a deer path leading into a marshy area along the river. Wild columbine lined the path. We lingered there for a few minutes until all of Buddy's senses were sated, then moved on.

Just as we were going to turn back, I realized the small side road where we stood led to an old homestead. The road itself wound alongside a long-abandoned gravel pit. A marshy area was at the bottom of the pit and several red-winged blackbirds were taking off and landing among the rushes and cat tails. An entirely new little ecosystem had formed in this gravel pit. Buddy and I stood on the edge and watched. We held a silent conversation about time and birds and life's journey, just a few brief ideas held together in the silence, punctuated only by birdsong in the marsh below.

We walked further down this old road, with grass growing in the middle, leading to what must have been the home site at one time. We stood in the tall green grass and listened to the history of the place, the few simple kernels of truth that still exist there, left behind by those who once slept in their beds beneath the stars inside that old stand of cottonwoods. After a few minutes we both quietly turned and walked away, leaving them in peace.

On the way back, Buddy decided it was time to run again and so we ran. The wind was rising, the sun peeking out from behind the clouds only now and then. As we reached the edge of Lonewolf, we stopped and picked a few sprigs from the old lilac bush that stands sentry on the corner. Well, I picked. Buddy rolled around on the ground beneath it, delirious from the scent.

Now, he's all pooped out and sleeping at my feet, dreaming, no doubt, of lilacs and deer poop and blackbirds on the wing.